The first time I interviewed Shaheed Akbar, a.k.a. the Jacka in December of 2007, during a midnight session for Tear Gas (Artist Records/SMC), due June 16 he was rolling purple and green weeds plus two types of hash into a Sharpie-sized blunt. I felt like Paul Bowles interviewing Bob Marley. Having known him three years, I can assure you that even in the Bay's smoky atmosphere, Jacka blazes like a forest fire.
I dwell on this because it's one facet of the Tear Gas concept, beyond the title's literal meaning. The perpetual cloud enveloping Jacka is as much a part of his persona as his mobbed out tales of street life, based on experience. Like many artists, the MC enlists his favorite plant in the service of music.
"Weed helps you concentrate on certain things," Jacka observes, during a follow-up interview last month. "Nothing that contains too much multitasking. But if you don't rap, try writing one; it's hard as fuck. Weed gets you outside your normal realm so you coming up with crazy shit."
ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?
Yet, considering his consumption, Jacka barely raps about weed, or at least no more than most rappers; he has other things on his mind. When I e-mail Paul Wall, one of several big-name features on Tear Gas, to ask why he wanted to work with Jacka, he emphasizes the authenticity of his collaborator's verses.
"He speaks from experience when he rhymes," Wall writes. "Like he's rapping from a hustler's perspective for other hustlers."
The experience Wall cites consists of details which, in the aggregate, might make for improbable fiction. Jacka's rise to local notoriety at age 18 as a member of C-Bo's Mob Figaz whose eponymous debut (Git Paid, 1999) moved something like 140,000 units is fairly well documented. But the story begins much earlier. Born of 14-year-old parents, young Jacka saw his mother get addicted to crack, and his father go to prison for a decade only to be murdered shortly after release. The result was an impoverished childhood in various hoods in Oakland, Richmond, and finally Pittsburg, where the Mob Figaz began.
"As a kid, everywhere I lived was in the projects," he says. "A nigga's whole thing is to get out of there." Such ambition led Jacka to start dealing crack as early as age 11.
"Say you're in school," Jacka continues. "Moms ain't working. Pops ain't around. The other kids at school have everything you don't, as far as clothes and packing they own lunch. All that matters when you're a kid. You go to junior high and you eating free lunch, people are like, 'What kind of nigga is you?' So when you're from the hood and can hustle, that's definitely helping your self-esteem. You pulling out wads of cash and motherfuckers who used to laugh at you ain't got shit. That made me feel hella good."
"Things I had to do to survive is one thing," he says. "But how I feel about it now is another."
BLUNT (OR DEEP) EMOTION
Jacka's willingness to probe psychological wounds reveals another implication of Tear Gas. Paradoxically or not, in a genre where emotions are usually limited to elation and anger, a large part of Jacka's appeal is his emphasis on the melancholy ambivalence of street life. It's subtle, of course, sprinkled into stories of coke-dealing and cap-busting. But contrary to his assertion on the Traxamillion-produced "Girls," an infectious thug-pop remake of the 1986 Beastie Boys classic, Jacka doesn't just "knock hoes and live it up."
"You can only shoot the breeze so much; you gotta drop a jewel on people," says Jacka, citing 2Pac, to whom he pays homage in "Hope Is for Real." "He had to be a sheep in wolf's clothing because he had to reach me, the niggas in the hood, but look what you learn from him.